23 d’abril 2013

Against patents

The case against patents

Some months ago, a WP blog hightlighted a paper by Boldrin and Levine with a straightforward title. Now you can read it at the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The summary is in the first paragraph:
The case against patents can be summarized briefly: there is no empirical evidence that they serve to increase innovation and productivity, unless productivity is identified with the number of patents awarded—which, as evidence shows, has no correlation with measured productivity. This disconnect is at the root of what is called the “patent puzzle”: in spite of the enormous increase in the number of patents and in the strength of their legal protection, the US economy has seen neither a dramatic acceleration in the rate of technological progress nor a major increase in the levels of research and development expenditure.
A risky statement unless there is a clear support from research. However, once you continue reading you'll have arguments to be convinced about it. The impact on pharmaceutical industry is analysed in detail:
There are four things that should be born in mind in thinking about the role of patents in the pharmaceutical industry. First, patents are just one piece of a set of complicated regulations that include requirements for clinical testing and disclosure, along with grants of market exclusivity that function alongside patents. Second, it is widely believed that in the absence of legal protections, generics would hit the market side by side with the originals. This  assumption is presumably based on the observation that when patents expire, generics enter immediately. However, this overlooks the fact that the generic manufacturers have had more  than a decade to reverse-engineer the product, study the market, and set up production lines. Lanjouw’s (1998) study of India prior to the recent introduction of pharmaceutical patents there indicates that it takes closer to four years to bring a product to market after the original is introduced—in other words, the fifi rst-mover advantage in  pharmaceuticals is larger than is ordinarily imagined. Third, much development of pharmaceutical products is done outside the private sector; in Boldrin and Levine (2008b), we provide some details. Finally, the current system is not working well: as Grootendorst, Hollis, Levine, Pogge, and Edwards (2011) point out, the most notable current feature of pharmaceutical innovation is the huge “drought” in the development of new products.
And the proposal is a controversial one:
we could either treat Stage II and III clinical trials as public goods (where the task would be financed by National Institutes of Health, who would accept bids from firms to carry out this work) or by allowing the commercialization of new drugs—at regulated prices equal to the economic costs of drugs—if they satisfy the Food and Drug Administration requirements for safety even if they do not yet satisfy the current (overly demanding) requisites for proving efficacy.
The last sentence sounds far from what should be a "fair" regulatory process in pharmaceuticals. Anyway, it seems that we have entered in a new perspective on patents and more scholars will be supporting it in the future.  I'm close to this perspective, but the details are important, as usual.